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This year’s ‘Jewish Nobel’ is a group prize, going to Jewish activists supporting Ukraine

The decade-old prize has until now been treated as a lifetime achievement award for a single inspiring Jew

(JTA) — A prize established to honor a single inspiring Jew with a lifetime of achievements has been awarded this year to a nameless group whose work is ongoing: Jewish activists in war-ravaged Ukraine.

The Genesis Prize Foundation said the war in Ukraine required a change in the approach it has taken since creating the prize, known by some as the “Jewish Nobel,” a decade ago.

“Recognizing the extraordinary nature of events dominating the past 11 months, The Genesis Prize Selection Committee has decided to depart from the usual custom of awarding the prize to a single Jewish individual,” the group said in a statement.

It added, “Instead, the Committee has elected to announce a collective award to Jewish activists and NGOs who were inspired by the brave citizens of Ukraine and their courageous president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and chose to act on their Jewish values by standing up for freedom, human dignity, and justice.”

The group is also not awarding the traditional $1 million prize that recipients have donated to charity; instead, it says it plans to “continue to make grants to NGOs to alleviate the suffering in Ukraine, as we have done since the beginning of the war.” Those groups have included the JDC, which has distributed emergency aid across the country; United Hatazalah of Israel, which trained Ukrainians in emergency first aid; and Natal, an Israeli trauma response group, according to its Facebook page.

The goal of the prize, its co-founder and board chair Stan Polovets told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, remains to stimulate Jewish giving by raising awareness of particular needs.

“Freedom is one of the most important values of the Jewish people. And this is a country that’s fighting for its freedom. It has a president who has shocked everyone by his resilience and courage,” he said about Ukraine. “We think that the Jewish community worldwide needs to be supportive to the extent it can.”

In going with the group prize, Genesis circumvented the potential pitfalls of honoring Zelensky himself. The Genesis Prize Foundation held Zelensky up as a Jewish hero last October, when its cofounder and board member Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident and 2020 honoree, visited him in Kyiv. Sharansky, who lives in Israel, has been a leading advocate for Israel to dedicate more resources to Ukraine.

Natan Sharansky, the Genesis Prize cofounder and board member, visits with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelesnky in Kyiv in October 2022. (Courtesy Genesis Prize Foundation)
Natan Sharansky, the Genesis Prize cofounder and board member, visits with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelesnky in Kyiv in October 2022. (Courtesy Genesis Prize Foundation) Image by

But honoring Zelensky, Ukraine’s most prominent Jew, could have made for an uncomfortable situation at the Genesis Prize’s glitzy awards ceremony: In his efforts to secure more resources for Ukraine’s armed forces, Zelensky has also openly criticized Israel for not being as forthcoming as he would like. (Israel’s particular geopolitical interests have confounded the country’s response to the war since its start Feb. 24, 2022.)

And while some have called Zelensky a “modern Maccabee,” he has not always signaled pride about being Jewish, which prize recipients are expected to show, saying in 2019, “The fact that I am Jewish barely makes 20 in my long list of faults.”

Polovets declined to comment on the selection process. The Genesis Prize has never gone to a current political office-holder; politician and businessman Mike Bloomberg was honored after he left the New York City mayor’s office.

The temporary departure from the Genesis Prize Foundation’s regular approach extended beyond who was chosen as the recipient. The group opened nominations publicly but then did not release a shortlist for a public advisory vote as it has in recent years. It also decided not to hold its traditional awards ceremony in Jerusalem that has in the past been an unusual convening of Diaspora Jewish leaders, Israeli government officials and celebrities. (Last year, the Knesset dissolved itself the night of the ceremony, when Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla was being honored; the politicians did not attend.)

While the changes made sense for the unusual moment, Polovets acknowledged potential downsides, including confusion about the Genesis Prize brand and the lack of a celebrity spokesperson for the year’s cause. He also said he anticipated that without a single awardee to guide where donations go, his organization could receive an unusual number of unsolicited applications for aid.

The group will begin discussions about where to direct its giving in about a month, according to foundation officials. That will also be the first anniversary of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The tweaks to the selection process are not the first changes at Genesis induced by the war: The three Russian billionaires who helped start the prize stepped down from the board of the related Genesis Philanthropy Group last March, after being targeted by Western sanctions in response to the invasion.

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